Maus: A Creative Re-creation of the Holocaust Through the Eyes of a Torn Family

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

"The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human" - Adolf Hitler
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"It was the beginning of 1938, before the war, hanging high in the center of town, it was a Nazi flag" This moment would signal the beginning of the end for many Jews at the hands of the Nazi regime.

Maus is a graphic novel that tells the story of Art gathering information from his father, Vladek, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. Not only do we see the struggle Art has in his quest to obtain information from his father and his life now that many years have passed since the Holocaust, but also the stuggle in the first hand tale of the experiences he went through in order to keep his family safe. This story brings to life the horror of the Nazi Regime, and explains the events in such a way that the reader becomes engrossed in the work, reliving the fear and desperation of the Jewish families.

Imagine a time in which families are being separated and torn apart for no other reason than their ethnicity. At one point in the story Vladek's own cousin takes jewels from his father in law as payment to help get them out of the ghetto safe, but then realizing that he would have to risk his own life, he turned a blind eye as the old wealthy couple got sent to a concentration camp. Vladek explains to his son as he recounts the story "At that time it wasn't anymore families. It was everybody to take care for himself...he was a millionaire, but even this didn't save his life." Throughout the story there are countless tales of betrayal and dehumanization, and it is only through this that the reader can truly get a sense of the horrific experiences that occurred during the Holocaust.

The use of animals as the characters in the story is one of the most unique aspects of the book. Spiegelman depicts the Jewish people as mice, the Nazis as cats, and the Polish people as pigs. Some may find this obvious before reading the book, but when one reads the story, the style of using non-human characters really accentuates the fact that the Nazis are treating the Jews as sub-human beings and their acts of attrition are truly animalistic. Even when Spiegelman draws the story of himself talking to his father, he still uses mice; even though the cat-and-mouse game is over, those persecuted continue being who they always have been, trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.

The inclusion of the story of Art and his father gives the book a sense of being more than just a biography;Maus2.jpg as readers we see what it is like for people to live now with what happened in the past and the influences it has on the children who desire to know about what life was like during the Holocaust. There is an ever-present struggle between Art trying to get his dad to finally adjust to a normal lifestyle and Vladek keeping the old consciousness of saving money and protecting loved ones. There is also the story of Vladek, Art, and his deceased mother. Vladek is frustrated with his new wife's lifestyle and says of her, "She sees more often the hairdresser than she sees me!" At the same time he is still mourning his lost wife as Art longs to know more about his mother through the documents she left behind. Vladek struggles to decipher if his father's actions are due to the unusual circumstances he has been through, or if they are just a part of his personality. Readers also get the sense that perhaps since Vladek is aging, as presented through the need to take various medications, the necessity of exercise, and him losing the ability to physically complete certain tasks, Art feels an urgency to get his father to tell the story of his past.

As Vladek tells of the difficulties of keeping his family safe, his wife sane, choosing what people to trust, and staying invisible, Art goes through challenges of getting his father's story onto paper and trying to cope with his father as he ages. This is very different from many other stories written about the Holocaust, because the reader gets to see the next generation after the Holocaust, and how it affects an entire family. Many of the most touching and real scenes of this book occur outside of the context of the Holocaust, when Art is trying to pry the story out of his father. These are the parts of the book that allow the reader to experience characters as whole people, and not just victims. At the end of the book we are left with an ominous picture of Vladek and others entering Aushwitz as he says, "And we came here to the concentration camp Auschwitz, and we knew that from here we will not come out anymore..." The story continues in book II.

More can be read at The Institute of Historical Review

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Recommendations for Teachers

When using this book for the classroom, please keep in mind that this is a graphic novel and some students may have difficulty with the layout of the pages. It may even be necessary to teach a short lesson on how to read a graphic novel. Another thing that teachers should be aware is that some of the sentence structure is fragmented and switched around. This is deliberate, because Vladek, who is Art's father, is not a native speaker of English. He is talking "normally" as far as someone who hasn't perfected the English language. This may cause confusion among the students. It may also be helpful for teachers to have pictures and maps of all the places that Vladek and Anja lived in and traveled through. You can trace their forced journey throughout Poland and the surrounding countries. You may also want your students to do research on concentration camps, particularly Auschwitz, for more help. If you happen to have been to a concentration camp or know of someone who has, you could ask them to come into the classroom for a presentation so that they can get a feel for how horrible places like these were, and that these things did actually happen.
Maus is an excellent book to teach in combination with other subjects. History is an obvious choice, but there are others as well. As a graphic novel, it can easily be connected to an art class studying the graphic novel as an artistic medium. It can be connected to writing courses, with an analysis of the techniques and literary devices found in graphic novels and how they differ from "standard" literature. The book could be compared to other famous Holocaust writings, including Night, Number the Stars, The Hiding Place, and The Diary of Anne Frank in a literature class.

Auschwitz Concentration Camp Entrance
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About Art Spiegelman
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Art Spiegelman was born on February 15, 1948 in Stockholm, Sweden to Holocaust survivors Vladek and Anja Spiegelman. In 1951, the family relocated to New York, settling in Rego Park, a small neighborhood in Queens. Growing up in New York, Spiegelman attended the High School of Art and Design. Spiegelman started drawing at a young age and saw success early on in his career. At age 14, he had already begun selling his work to the Long Island Post. Despite his early success, Spiegelman's parents encouraged him to attend Dentistry school. Spiegelman, however, enrolled at Harpur College (now State University of New York), majoring in art and philosophy. His most famous and renowned work is Maus for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Most recently he has collaborated with his wife Franciose Mouly on a series of children's comics that they named Little Lit.

Other works by Spiegelman
The Wild Party
Open Me, I'm A Dog (children's book)
In the Shadow of No Towers
Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!

Multimedia (Video or Audio)
An interview with Art Spiegelman on the Charlie Rose Show (Interview from 28:00-41:00)

A video book review of Maus

A clip from Battle of the Books explaining the importance of graphic novels as a dramatic form of literature, Maus in particular.

Additional Resources:
Here are some helpful links that will help you teach and better understand the book and the author
  • A History of the Holocaust - In-depth history, articles, and links to information regarding the Holocaust. Check out the general history of this time period to get a better understanding of the story.
  • Reading Graphic Novels- A brief explanation on the basic steps of reading a graphic novel. For students and even teachers who do not read graphic novels very often, it gives a good tutorial on how to effectively read one.
  • Teaching Graphic Novels- A great resource for lesson plans, tips, and curriculum for teaching graphic novels in middle school and high school classrooms. Divided into seperate grade levels to help specific needs of different ages.
  • Teaching Maus in the Classroom- Everything needed to teach Maus effectively in the classroom including study questions, author information, and much more.
  • Maus Lesson Plan- An in-depth lesson plan that can be used by teachers to facilitate day to day activites and prompts that will help students understand the intricate story and its current day implications. It also gives great ideas of how teachers can creatively and effectevely teach Maus in the classroom.
  • Interview with Art Spiegelman- A comprehensive interview about Maus and other works. Art talks about the suprising success of Maus and what it meant to him.
  • Graphic Novel Suggestions - A list of 30 graphic novels that may be of interest to students wanting to read more after the reading of Maus. It is a good resource in showing what other graphic novels can be enjoyed by teachers and students.
  • Racism Article By Art Spiegelman - In this article "Getting In Touch With My Inner-Racist" Art talks about his own experiences with racism and prejudice, focusing on African Americans.
  • Maus Review 1 - Review from a high school teacher who has used the book in their classroom and talks about how it fosters intense discussion and debate with his students.
  • Maus Review 2 - Another review of Maus which brings up some questions about the author's intent and writing style.
*Made by Zach Harney, Jared Maynard, Kelly Pavlovic, Laura Zeichman, Kelly Butcher,
and Cristina Walcott